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Gun Law Changes 'Kick In The Face' For Port Arthur Survivors

"We’re not saying 'no guns', but these firearms need to be limited," gun control group says.

What you need to know
  • The state government has proposed relaxing laws around pump-action shotguns and semi-automatic rifles
  • Gun control groups are opposed, others say farmers need more tools to control pests

Australia's gun laws have long been admired by countries across the world. Following repeated mass shootings in the United States, it was Australia's response to its worst mass shooting, in Port Arthur, that many have pointed to as a best-practise for dealing with gun crime.

Strict gun laws heavily restricted the sale and use of shotguns and other long arms, and many have since called on America to follow Australia's lead. But this public praise has not stopped the Tasmanian government from looking to change these very laws.

The Tasmanian government has come under fire for proposed changes to firearm legislation which would widen access to pump-action shotguns and semi-automatic rifles, reforms which police say could breach the landmark National Firearms Agreement.

Proposals from the state's Liberal government to allow greater access to Category C weapons -- which include pump-action shotguns and semi-automatic rifles -- for farmers and sports shooters, double the licensing period for gun licenses, and relax some penalties for storage breaches.

The proposals were revealed on the eve of the Tasmanian election in March. Criticism was harsh from gun control groups, including survivors of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman (AAP Image/Rob Blakers)

Last week, the ABC revealed a report from Tasmanian Police expressing concern the reforms could also breach the landmark National Firearms Agreement, enacted in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting.

"This is the state with the worst massacre in Australian history, and for the government to be pushing for the watering down of gun laws is not only appalling but a kick in the face for those who suffered in that time," Sam Lee, of Gun Control Australia, told ten daily.

A 2017 report commissioned by GCA, undertaken by a University of Sydney academic, found no Australian state had ever totally fulfilled every condition of the agreement, and warned of "slippage" as gun laws were eroded around the country.

As reported by the ABC, the police report to the Tasmanian government -- dated as being prepared in March -- warned "it is not currently clear that all of the proposed amendments are within the scope of the National Firearms agreement".

The government and shooting groups say farmers need more tools to control pests

Tasmanian Minister for Police, Michael Ferguson, has been contacted for comment. In a statement, Tasmanian Police acting assistant commissioner Geoff Smith declined to respond to questions on the police report, and said the proposed changes were a matter for the government.

"The proposed changes will be examined by the Legislative Council Review and it’s not appropriate for Tasmania Police to pre-empt the committee’s findings," he told ten daily.

"Our priority is the safety of Tasmanians. It’s our role to apply legislation and keep Tasmanians safe."

At the time of the laws' announcement, Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman spoke of a "balance" between gun laws and supporting farmers.

"The intent here is to support our farmers to allow them to best do their job, to do nothing is inconsistent with the National Firearms Agreement," he told the ABC.

"We are aware of the sensitivities around these issues and we are seeking to find the balance, one that supports our families that work in the rural sector but which is not inconsistent with national gun laws."

The laws are needed to better help farmers manage pest animals on their properties, according to Rod Drew, executive officer of the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA), a leading gun lobby group.

Guns handed in to Tasmanian police during a recent firearms amnesty (AAP IMAGE/Supplied by Tasmania Police)

He said his organisation was consulted by the Tasmanian state government before the policy was announced, as the government explored "improvements" to firearms laws "in line with the tenets of the National Firearms Agreement."

"These improvements were scoped to ensure better outcomes for stock and crop protection and feral pest management and to minimize the significant economic losses and environmental impacts caused by introduced species," he told ten daily.

The University of Tasmania is currently undertaking a study into feral deer, after concerns of a population explosion and widespread damage to wilderness areas without proper management.

University modelling predicted the deer population could explode to one million in coming years, from current numbers estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000.

“The increase that we have seen in numbers has hit a point where we cannot ignore it anymore,” said Professor Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania’s School of Natural Sciences

A memorial in Port Arthur to honour those killed in the 1996 massacre (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)

However, Lee said Gun Control Australia did not believe measures to better arm farmers were needed.

The laws already allow for farmers to have access to high powered firearms when required, Lee said.

"We're not asking for the dismantling for what's occurred already, but this new proposal is about new access for larger numbers of these higher powered firearms," she said.

"For us, the whole reason for the Port Arthur agreement was limiting access to these high powered firearms... We’re not saying 'no guns', but these firearms need to be limited."